Social Media and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Posted 2 Days Ago

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) took social media by storm… by accident.  I’m sure you all recall the social media frenzy that surrounded the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last summer.  You may not have known, however, that the challenges began without linkage to any one charity.  What turned out to be a larger than life social media blitz was not started by an ALS fund raising organization in attempt to boost donations.  That being said, it was wildly popular and successfully raised over $100 million dollars for ALS.  If social media can be credited for raising $100 million in only 30 days[1] with no one even leading the charge, what does this mean for social media marketing?  How do we harness the power of social media to make our organizations more well known, more sought after, and of course, more profitable?

One of the key factors to the success of the movement was timing.  The challenges really took off in July/August, the warmest months in the United States, and participants were challenged to dump ice water over their heads.  Were this challenge to have taken place, say, in January the participation no doubt would have suffered.  Next was the lightheartedness of the challenge.  While ALS is a very serious diagnosis, the challenge aimed at giving the participants something fun to do on a summer day.  Not only were people participating in the challenge, they were watching their friends, actors/actresses, athletes, businesses, TV personalities and the like participate.  Even George W. Bush got in on the action.   It was not a doom and gloom message.  Interestingly enough, many of the videos failed to mention the reason for the challenge was to raise money for ALS.  Another reason for the success of the movement was that it had a timeline.  Challengees were told they needed to complete the challenge themselves within 24 hours or donate $100 to ALS.

The movement did not happen without criticism, however.  Perhaps the biggest criticism was that it did not draw enough attention to ALS.  Some thought it was more of a publicity stunt for each person involved (hoping to get their 30 seconds of stardom) than a legitimate vehicle for raising funds for ALS research.  In my opinion, these critics would not have been wrong.  I am willing to bet that the majority of participants had no strong ties to ALS and therefore had no real drive to raise money for the cause.  We can debate later whether or not that mattered to the outcome of the movement.  Additionally, the entire premise of the viral videos was that they would be created if you were NOT donating!  Many sceptics say that the movement was flawed from the beginning and that we were supporting a lack of donations by continuing these videos.  There were also criticisms of what the money might be used for.  There is one known study involving embryonic stem cells which is quite controversial.  Lastly, there was concern over the wasteful use of water in states that were in the middle of a drought.

Regardless of our personal views of the Ice Bucket Challenge, there is no arguing that it was wildly successful at raising millions of dollars in a very short period of time.  With this comes many questions: Could any organization have pulled this off?  Did it work because it grew organically or can we recreate it with intention and direction?  Did there need to be a “cause” behind the challenges?

Let’s say, for example, that I run my own photography studio.  Could I attempt to use social media in a similar way to boost exposure to my studio therefore increasing my clientele?  I would argue that you can.  While you may not be challenging viewers to dump an ice bucket on their heads, you may come up with a similar idea.   In order for it to be successful one would need to have a strong presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and perhaps even LinkedIn.  One could hold contests where participants post, say, photos of their pets and require them to in turn tag 3 of their friends.  Each person that does this will earn an entry to win a free photo shoot, or something of the like.  This will bring more traffic to your website, Facebook page, Twitter account, etc.

It is important to study a phenomenon like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge so that we can learn how to recreate such an environment in our own businesses.  We must take what worked and improve on what left some with a bad taste in their mouths.  If this entire movement happened without a shred of marketing genius, the possibilities really are endless.  It is up to us to harness the power of social media to push our organizations to the next level.


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